- Helping An Old Soldier Fight On
- A License to Look for a Better Life
- "Tonight, my four children and I will have a roof over our heads, because I had a lawyer."
- Father and Son
- "The Preacher" Was Really a Thief
- Homeless While Waiting for Justice
- Locked-Out in the Middle of Winter
- Helping People Get and Keep a Job
- What Background?
- Lengthy Waiting Lists for Health Insurance are Illegal
Father and Son
(The client names in this story have been changed.)
Duchess the cat clearly knows what’s coming. Rob has the steel grooming brush in his left hand as he pats the couch cushion next to him with his right and calls for her to jump up. And she does.
“I love to keep my cat clean,” Rob says, giving the black and white tabby’s fur a thorough going over as she half-growls at him. It seems a mite rough but when he’s done, and puts down the brush to reclaim his grip on his can of Pepsi, Duchess hops down and immediately begins nuzzling his hand and his leg. She is well-fed and yes, her fur looks terrific.
"We sleep warm and dry."
It’s mid-fall in northeast Wisconsin. There’s a strong, steady wind blowing the leaves around in the cul-de-sac where Rob lives now, and the overnight temperature is expected to go below freezing. The heat may not be on yet in Rob’s tiny one-bedroom apartment, but it will be soon, and he’ll have to close his front door to keep out the chill that’s already creeping up the four-plex's hallway from downstairs.
“This is what it’s all about,” Rob says, gesturing with his hands at the walls of the living room, which are hung with more than a dozen big framed photos of his son Dylan. “We got a warm place to play our games and watch our TV, and we sleep warm and dry.”
Rob is one of many Legal Action of Wisconsin clients whose problems have involved public housing. The state “Section 8” voucher that helps Rob pay the rent can be forfeited if he gets evicted or a landlord accuses him of misconduct.
Rob was indeed getting evicted from another apartment, and facing the loss of his voucher, when he turned to Legal Action for help.
Rob is in his 40s. He’s not a small man. He rides bikes long distances in all weather, looking for stuff he can fix or salvage, which keeps him very fit. But, he says, “I’m not smart.” He has been diagnosed as a cognitively disabled adult. Years ago when he drank, he was arrested more than once for disorderly conduct.
But that was before he quit drinking, and started taking care of Duchess, and Dylan came to live with him.
You can hear Dylan coming long before he makes it to the apartment. Another kid has bumped bikes with him on the way back from the skate park and he's crying, hard. Rob ushers him upstairs and into the kitchen and makes sure that he gets his ADHD medication – like his dad, he’s receiving publicly funded mental health services.
“You’ll see, the medicine really helps him,” says Rob, settling back on the couch. Dylan, no longer crying but breathing hard, finishes the water he uses to take his pill and then leaps onto the couch and wraps himself around his dad’s back. Rob tells him, for what sounds like it must be the millionth time, that if he can’t play nice with those guys he shouldn’t play with them at all.
Rob’s threatened eviction from the other apartment was because of neighbor complaints. “You can see how it happened,” he says. “The other kids start it but it’s Dylan they hear. They say he’s out of control, and that I got mental problems so I can’t control him.” He shakes his head.
Legal Action lawyer Kirsten Navarrette went to Rob’s landlord to see if there was some way to stop the eviction and save his housing voucher. It wasn’t easy: Rob and Dylan had come to the complex from another where they’d had similar problems.
Eventually she worked out a deal: The landlord agreed to voluntarily terminate Rob's lease, and to acknowledge that Rob had done nothing wrong. Rob agreed to move. With his Section 8 voucher intact he was able to get his new place in the four-plex.
“I think we’re gonna be better here,” Rob says. “It's a lot smaller. And Dylan is the only kid in this building.”
Problem solved for now
By now Dylan has recovered enough to move from lying behind his dad to lying on the rug at his feet. The boy is 11, tall for his age but skinny. His hair is cropped short like his dad’s. From his spot on the floor he eyes a stranger who is visiting his house. He doesn’t really look angry or sad any more.
“Why don’t you give him one of your Pepsis?” Rob suggests. After a minute or so Dylan stands up and heads to the fridge, where he counts the cans three times before selecting one. He returns to the living room and gently pushes the can into the stranger’s chair between the cushion and the frame, and then turns and walks off, never making eye contact.
Dylan heads out the apartment’s still-open front door. Five minutes later he’s out front with the same boys, calling up for his dad to come help fix a kid's flat tire.
Rob comes down and stands at the center of the small cluster of boys. They are all smiling and leaning against their bikes and there is no real menace in them, only high spirits. Dylan is smiling too, leaning toward the other boys to whisper messages to them.
Rob tries to remember what he did with his pump. Maybe it’s in one of his storage units in the basement. Eventually the boy with the flat tire is sent home walking his bike, with a promise of a repair tomorrow. And Rob and Dylan head upstairs for dinner and something so easy to take for granted: a warm place to sleep on a cold night.
There’s no way a casual visitor can know if it’s the medicine that has calmed Dylan down, or if it was the chance to just pull away and be with his dad for a minute, or something else. There’s no telling if it will last, either. He does have to take his medicine regularly. But Rob is optimistic. “This is a much better place for us, a lot fewer kids.” He smiles. “I do miss my garage though.”
As for Navarrette, his Legal Action lawyer, Rob says: “She was just terrific to us. I can’t thank her enough. She made this place possible for us. She made it possible for me to take care of my son.”